U.S. Ally Iraq Turns to Russia for Military Support, Oil Deals and Nation Building

Iraq's vice president has reached out to Russia during a high-profile visit, saying he seeks closer ties with Moscow after 14 consecutive years of U.S. military intervention in his country.

During a visit to Moscow, Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki told Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Baghdad may be "prone to new political developments in light of regional interferences" and to avoid a "foreign political entity" from forcing its agenda, according to Kurdish media outlet Rudaw. Since overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and installing a new government in 2003, the U.S. has played a major role in the country's internal affairs, something Maliki has fought in the past. As Russia asserts its own influence in neighboring Syria, Maliki reportedly seeks to play Moscow's economic, political and military power against Washington's in Iraq.

Related: Iran and Iraq military unite against ‘terrorism,’ creating potential problems for U.S.

"Historically, Russia has close relations with Iraq. That is why we would like to see Russia’s visible presence in our country, both in terms of politics and defense," Maliki said following a meeting with Russian upper house of parliament speaker Valentina Matviyenko, according to the state-run Tass Russian news agency. "It would create [the] balance the region, its nations and countries need.

"Iraq wants to strengthen strategic cooperation in such areas as electricity generation, oil sector, research cooperation, university training, economy and trade, as well as political and military spheres," he added.

RTX3CTS4 Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki during their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 25, 2017. After more than 14 years of U.S. military intervention, Iraq has reached out to Washington's rival, Moscow, to "balance" U.S. influence in the country. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS

The U.S.'s quick success against the Iraqi military in 2003 was followed by nearly a decade and a half of battling an insurgency led by jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which ultimately served as the basis for a larger enemy, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The hardline Sunni Muslim organization swept through major Iraqi cities in 2014, compelling a second U.S. intervention that was largely carried on the ground by a refurbished Iraqi army, Kurdish forces and majority-Shiite Muslim militias backed by Iran. Now that ISIS has been declared defeated by the Iraqi government, U.S. officials have campaigned for a prolonged presence in the war-torn nation, something that officials like Maliki are deeply critical of.

Maliki has instead praised the efforts of the U.S.'s primary international rival, Russia. After staging a military intervention to support the embattled Syrian military and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against ISIS and other jihadists and insurgents, Russia's own armed forces managed to turn the tides of war for the Syrian government. This has proved a major complication for separate, U.S.-backed efforts to eradicate ISIS by teaming up first with various rebels, and later Kurdish militants, whose national aspirations have frustrated both the Syrian and Iraqi governments.

After meeting with Lavrov and Matviyenko, Maliki flew to St. Petersburg to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin himself to discuss a major purchase of T-90 battle tanks in a contract that could exceed $1 billion, Reuters cited Russian military officials and analysts in local media as saying. Maliki also thanked Putin for Russia's role in combating ISIS and other jihadist groups in the Middle East.

RTX3BUQZ A maps shows damage caused in the battle to retake Iraq's Mosul from ISIS that damaged thousands of structures in the historic Old City and destroyed nearly 500 buildings as of July 16, with a chart showing destruction since August 2016. The U.S. is also heavily involved in the campaign to dislodge ISIS from its de facto capital in neighboring Syria with the help of Kurdish militants, but Iraq has shown particular interest recently in Russia's intervention against ISIS on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his armed forces. United Nations Institute for Training and Research/Operations Satellite Applications Program/Reuters

"Russia has made a tremendous contribution, in particular in Syria and Iraq, to prevent the disintegration of the region. We sincerely thank you," Maliki told Putin, according to Tass. "Were it not for your role, the map of the region would have changed now, and negatively for us."

The move comes just two days after a series of diplomatic exchanges between Iraq and Iran, an ally of Russia in Syria and another traditional foe of the U.S. Iran has contributed extensive resources to fighting ISIS in both Iraq and Syria in a way that, like Russia, has challenged U.S. interests. Majority-Shiite Muslim neighbors Iraq and Iran pledged closer cooperation in tackling "terrorism and extremism," among other defense endeavors.

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